The moment Kyle Riley and his SFG Promotions team announced the pre-entry opening for the JEGS-SFG $1.1 Million last summer, Steve Sisko typed in his credit card info on the pre-entry form and paid the $1,750 entry fee for each of his two entries in full. He knew he had to be at U.S. 131 Motorsports Park in Martin, Michigan, on Saturday, July 4, 2020, when one racer would walk away with the winner’s share of the richest paying race in the history of drag racing.
That $3,500 turned out to be the best investment Sisko ever made, as he became that one racer. After splits, the New Jersey native walked away with $400,000 to split in half with the winning car’s owner, Anthony Bertozzi. The next day, driving a completely different car with a different owner, Sisko went another 11 rounds to win the final $100K race in SFG’s week of mega-money bracket racing. He bagged $44,000 of that to split with the car owner, Bob Maclosky. The $1.1 Million win also came with a one-of-a-kind Cold Hard Art trophy modeled after Jeg Coughlin Jr.’s Chevy II Wagon and a custom-painted helmet.
[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #159, the Sportsman Issue, in August of 2020.]
“It’s one of those weekends that if you dreamt about it, it wouldn’t even work out as good as it did,” Sisko, 43, says as he drives into work at A.A. Auto Salvage, an auto salvage business owned by a fellow racer, Tom Stalba.
It’s been a couple weeks now since Sisko lit up 22 consecutive win lights in one of the most incredible performances in bracket racing history. He’s had plenty of time to reflect on the weekend, starting from the beginning.
Even though Sisko has race cars of his own, he didn’t feel like they were ready to carry him to victory at the SFG race. Instead, he called on a couple good friends to provide him with his steeds. He secured Maclosky’s ’87 Camaro and Bertozzi’s ’67 Chevy II, which he’s raced before, “obviously because it does wheelstands and it’s fun.”
“I’d rather drive two cars instead of double-enter one in case you break something and screw yourself twice,” Sisko says. “It worked out good being that I brought Bobby’s car with me and Anthony had the Nova in their trailer, so when the trailer got there I just parked close by and I had both cars right there.”
Sisko’s warmups for the million-dollar main event went reasonably well. He grabbed a handful of round wins in the first hundred-grander but lost early in both entries in the $20,000 race.
Friday, though, things started to change. He moved past the first round of the $1.1 Million race, which started with 630 entries. Eliminations continued Saturday morning, and Sisko got into a groove. He lost second round in Maclosky’s Camaro, but Bertozzi’s Nova kept rolling.
“It was one of those things where I felt confident and it felt like everything was working out the way I wanted,” Sisko says. “I’d tell my wife, ‘We’re starting to roll into where they’re starting to split the money, so we’re doing good.’ It was just one of those things where I told her after like fifth round, ‘I could win this race. Just beat one person at a time.’ It just worked out that way.”
Sisko was winning rounds even while he was fighting what he believed was a traction issue. When the Nova picked up the front wheels in one of its infamous wheelstands during the second round, Sisko felt a vibration in the seat that usually means it’s starting to spin the tires.
“I was trying to adjust stuff all day,” Sisko says. “I was going to put tires on the car after I won fifth round, which is crazy in itself, but the Mickey Thompson trailer didn’t have any tires left. We added weight to the car to see if we could get it to hook better, which is even crazier to add 50 or 60 pounds to the trunk of the car sixth round of a million-dollar-to-win race. But it just made me stay on my game. I was making changes to make sure I could run under my number.”
In the quarterfinals, Sisko’s .047 package slipped by Brian Cireddu, who was .010 on the red side of the tree. He tightened it up for the semifinals, which was the final round on the door car side of the ladder. With his .018 light and 6.301 on a 6.29 dial-in, he moved past Jason Hemerline and his breakout run.
Sisko was oddly calm as he headed to the staging lanes to face Bill Swain, who defeated the red-hot Hunter “Hunny Wayne” Patton in the dragster final round to advance to the main final round with Sisko. The crowd stayed clear of the staging lanes and instead headed to the starting line to see who would come out on top.
“I kind of zoned everything out,” Sisko says. “Everybody left you alone and knew what you were racing for, so nobody was going to be that person coming up to you asking dumb questions right before you get in the car.”
As Sisko fired up the Nova and made the right-hand turn from the staging lanes into the water box, he was right where he wanted to be. Hundreds of fellow racers, fans and family members flooded the water box, the starting line and the beginning parts of the grandstands for the final round. All eyes were on Sisko and Swain.
“Going to all these million-dollar races for the last 25 years, I always wanted to be in that spotlight, but when I was there I really didn’t notice it,” Sisko admits. “It sounds weird being that you were racing for so much money, but I actually felt like it was more calm. I don’t know if it’s because you already knew you had so much money even if you lost, but none of that ever crossed my mind.”
Sisko was trying to be .010 on the tree and run a couple thousandths over his dial-in, and that’s basically what he did. He cut an .011 light and went 6.281 on his 6.28 dial-in for a solid .012 winning package. In the other lane, Swain had the advantage out of the gate with his .004 bulb but broke out with a 4.644 on a 4.65 dial.
“When it left, it actually felt better than it did the last few runs,” Sisko says. “I thought, ‘I have a feeling I’m going fast again.’ I just got to a spot and said I have to kill two hundredths. I got on the brakes, I looked up and I was dead-on with a one and all the win lights were on. I kind of just laughed to myself, like, ‘Holy shit, what did I just do?’ kind of thing.
“Every decision I made that day was the right one,” he continues. “But I was driving more by feeling than I was by just trusting the car like a lot of people would do in those situations. I was dialing soft and just driving the car and making decisions by how it felt as I was going down the track.”
After seeing that final win light glowing in his lane, Sisko wanted to get back to his wife, Lindsay, and his friends as soon as possible. Rather than driving back through the pits to get back to the winner’s circle in the staging lanes, Sisko brought the Nova to a stop in the shutdown area, pulled a K-turn and headed back up the track. The track lights had been turned off and fireworks were going off in the background.
“I could see the fireworks, I could hear people yelling,” Sisko remembers. “The car has headlights, so it was kind of neat driving back up. It was like driving through a black hole back to everybody.”
Just as he had imagined, a mass of friends, family and supporters were waiting for Sisko to help him celebrate on the starting line.
“Getting there, I knew my wife would be the first one I’d see, so I just jumped out of the car and grabbed her and gave her some hugs and kisses,” Sisko says. “After that, it was just celebrating with everybody.”
The problem Sisko originally thought was a traction issue made itself known right after the final. The rear end locked up when the group tried to push the car out of the winner’s circle. When Bertozzi cracked it open back at the shop later that week, he found the ring gear was missing six teeth.
“But I guess the pinion still had teeth on it, so my vibration I felt was the ring and pinion or the ring gear rolling over the pinion,” Sisko surmises. “I guess I got lucky and staged on the other end of the ring gear every round. If I staged on those six teeth, I’m sure it would’ve just broken them off the rest of the way and I would’ve been screwed.
“That [final round] was my last run,” he adds. “It lasted nine runs with however many broken teeth throughout the day. It’s crazy to think about it.”
The celebration continued until around 3 a.m., at which point Sisko returned to his motorhome. He spent the next couple hours replying to hundreds of congratulatory messages. He only got a few hours of sleep before he woke up to the sound of race cars warming up for the final $100K race Sunday morning. Sisko got out of bed, showered, went outside and got back to work, this time returning to Maclosky’s Camaro.
Sisko won 10 rounds on his way to the $100K final round, where he met Brandon Taylor. With the opportunity to stack his cash a little higher, Sisko laid down a tighter package than the one he used to win the night before, leaving with a .006 reaction time and crossing the eighth-mile stripe with a 6.492 on his 6.49 dial-in. Taylor broke out by four thousandths.
“The whole day was a blur,” Sisko says. “Everything was just going easy. Bobby’s car is the one I won with that day, and that car is just ridiculous how consistent it was. It made it easy on that aspect.”
The extra money – practically pocket change, comparatively speaking – meant Sisko was able to send something back to both car owners.
“I’m just glad I won good money with the second car,” Sisko says. “This way, both car owners are happy. It made me feel good that I didn’t come home with nothing with one car and a ton of money with the other.
“Other than that, it’s just a race,” Sisko says about the high-dollar nature of the events he won. “No matter what we race for, it’s the same people and you have to do the same thing. It’s just that that day was more money to enter so it was more money to win.”
Sisko will be forever remembered as the winner of the first SFG $1.1 Million because of the dollar amount attached to the accomplishment. The fact that he won a $100K race the next day in a different car only adds to his legend. It’s that round win number, though, that Sisko believes is more important.
“Everybody keeps saying ‘I can’t believe you won back-to-back in two different cars.’ The two different cars thing doesn’t matter to me,” Sisko says. “I’ve won back-to-back two different days with different cars before. I’ve done that plenty of times, but not for that kind of money, obviously. The thing that drives me crazy is they were 11-round races. To win 11 rounds alone is nuts. To do it two days in a row with the quality of people and cars that were there, that’s what makes me feel the best.
“I don’t know if it’s ever going to happen again, if somebody’s going to win two 11-round races back to back,” he adds. “Probably never with two different cars. I feel like that’s something that’s going to stand forever. If there was some type of hall of fame or record book like they have for baseball, this would be something that’s probably never going to be broken.”
Sisko is sure to point out it wasn’t a one-man show, as he shares his appreciation for the people and companies who helped make his memorable weekend even possible. He thanks the car owners, Bertozzi and Maclosky, as well as John Labbous Jr., who hauled the cars to Michigan. He’s also appreciative of his wife, Lindsay, who joined Bertozzi’s daughter, Brittney, and bracket racing ace Tommy Cable as Sisko’s crew for the week. Sisko also mentions his parents, Jake and Janet, who’ve supported his racing passion for 26 years. Finally, his sponsors include Brodix, Biondo Racing Products, Mickey Thompson Tires and JEGS.
Even before winning the highest paying race in bracket racing history, Sisko had already racked up some of the biggest accomplishments a bracket racer can win.
“Growing up, I always said the Bracket Finals for bracket racing was the big thing,” Sisko says. “I watched my father go to that race every year when I was a kid. Probably 15 years ago, I won the Race of Champions there, then I won the Bracket Finals. I went out to Pomona and won the world championship. I wound up winning my first [NHRA] national event at Englishtown, close to where I grew up. I told my wife at that point, I’ve won everything I’ve ever dreamed of winning.”
That’s when Sisko shifted gears and started focusing on big-money bracket racing. He’d yet to win a 50-grander, so he started almost exclusively attending races that paid $50,000 or more. Here, a few years after making that switch, he won a hundred-grander and a million in just two days.
So where does Sisko go from here?
“I’m gonna go to all the big stuff now,” he says, adding that he plans to hit all the Spring Fling races, a few more SFG events, Britt Cummings and Gaylon Rolison Jr.’s Great American Guaranteed Million in October, and Randy Folk’s 25th Anniversary Million Dollar Race in late October. “If you’re winning, you’ve gotta go to all the big stuff and hope it continues. Like they say, I’ve gotta ride the wave.”